Tuesday, November 30, 2004

Thanks for the memories

Regular readers of this site may have caught on by now that I'm not a big fan of suburbia, and few things symbolize suburbia better than shopping malls. I hate malls. But there is one that holds a cherished place in my heart: Greengate Mall, which, before it was demolished, used to sit along Route 30 west of Greensburg in Westmoreland County.

When I was little, my grandparents used to take me out to lunch and shopping at Greengate, where they would invariably spoil me, as grandparents are supposed to do, by buying me toys. For years after my grandfather died, my grandmother and I continued to shop there together, taking a bus from her house on Madison Avenue in Greensburg. (She never learned how to drive.) Like the mall, Grandma, too, is now gone.

Those of you who shopped at Greengate I'm sure will recall that one of its largest stores was a G.C. Murphy. That store seemed to have everything. I would wander up and down its aisles--paying particular attention, of course, to the toys--amazed at the sheer amount of, well, stuff. Every trip to Greengate with Grandma included a trip to Murphy's. Compared to today's behomeths like Wal-Mart (which will soon rise from the rubble of Greengate, I'm sad to say) that particular Murphy's was lilliputian. But to a 5-year-old, it seemed like one of the biggest places on Earth. The G.C. Murphy chain is long gone, but not forgetten, and if you have your own memories of the store, you can share them here.

Friday, November 26, 2004

Don't let the door hit you...

Mario Lemiuex, the man credited for twice saving hockey in Pittsburgh--which doesn't have quite the same resonance say, as saving someone from a burning building, but this town's priorities have never been what they should be--says he'll take his puck and go home if the public doesn't pony up money for a new arena:

Groups in several cities, including Houston and Kansas City, have expressed interest in securing NHL franchise, and Lemieux acknowledged that, "There are a lot of people out there who have been inquiring. About us."

Be sure to send us a postcard.

Tuesday, November 23, 2004

Wall of separation, part deux

The nation's newly ascendant religious conservatives continue to wage their war against science, this time at the Grand Canyon:

Park bookstores at the Grand Canyon now sell the book "Grand Canyon: A Different View," which contradicts science, saying the Grand Canyon was formed by the great flood from the Bible story of Noah.

The book was written by a "born again" river guide who writes that his view of the canyon's being millions of years old changed after he "met the Lord. Now, I have 'a different view' of the Canyon, which, according to a biblical time scale, can't possibly be more than about a few thousand years old."

Letters to the park service from leaders of the scientific community protest the inclusion of the book alongside those based on science.

"The book is not about geology but, rather, advances a narrow religious view about the Earth," wrote seven presidents of scientific organizations — including the Paleontological Society, American Geophysical Union and Geological Society of America — in a December 2003 letter. "We urge you to remove the book from shelves where buyers are given the impression that the book is about Earth science and its content endorsed by the National Park Service."

Monday, November 22, 2004

How gauche

Maybe these juvenile delinquents in Mt. Lebanon were trying to find a way to pay for the buy-out of the school district's supertintendent.

This city is doomed

Hey, did you know that Pittsburgh's population has been declining? I picked up this nugget of information in today's Post-Gazette, in a story about the financial bail-out package passed by the Legislature over the weekend:

Rep. Dan Frankel, D-Squirrel Hill, defended Pittsburgh, saying factors like industrial collapse and population loss had hampered the city more than any alleged mayoral mismanagement did.

Here's a newsflash for you, Mr. Frankel: The city has been losing people for at least 60 years, and it has been losing people rapidly for at least 20. The city had plenty of time to prepare. But instead of managing decline by reducing city services and cutting workers to keep pace with the population loss, Pittsburgh's "leaders" instead tried to kick-start the city's economy through a series of government-driven economic redevelopment programs. Despite a consistent record of failure, the city continued to pursue economic polices that were discredited in much of the rest of the nation, and continued to treat city government as an employment agency.

How fitting that this statement should see print on the day that Lord & Taylor shuts its doors. "Alleged" mismanagement? Get down off the mayor's lap, Mr. Frankel.

Sunday, November 21, 2004

Judgment day

Michael Kinsley shows the lie in conservative complaints over "activist" judges. He also makes a point about Roe v. Wade that is not original but which bears repeating:

Complaints about judicial activism are a habit left over from powerlessness. They seem especially retro when held up against today's ambitious Republican judicial agenda. With one apparent exception, the major items on it are demands for federal judges to override Congress or states' rights. Republicans cheer, for example, when courts overturn state or federal -- or even private -- affirmative action programs, and they boo when such programs are allowed to continue unmolested. They have great hopes -- largely unrealized, so far -- for the "takings" clause of the Fifth Amendment as a tool for overturning environmental regulations or any other government policies that might reduce the value of someone's property. There is even a move afoot in the Senate to have Democratic filibusters against Bush's judicial nominees ruled unconstitutional. That would be activism squared.

And let's not forget that the Bush administration owes its very existence to the boldest act of judicial activism in a generation: the Supreme Court ruling that settled the 2000 presidential election dispute. Bush v. Gore made imaginative use of the 14th Amendment's equal protection clause to reverse the Florida Supreme Court's interpretation of its own state election laws.
Republicans will protest, sincerely if not always correctly, that these examples are all legitimate interpretations of the Constitution and not just invitations for judges to take a power trip. But that's the point. One person's constitutional interpretation is another person's judicial rampage. Neither party has a magic formula for determining which is which, and neither can resist trying to enact its agenda through judicial fiat when it gets the chance.


The "apparent" exception to the activist nature of the Republican judicial wish list is abortion. Although I am pro-choice, I was taught in law school, and still believe, that Roe v. Wade is a muddle of bad reasoning and an authentic example of judicial overreaching. I also believe it was a political disaster for liberals. Roe is what first politicized religious conservatives while cutting off a political process that was legalizing abortion state by state anyway. Three decades later, that awakened giant controls the government.

Of course, Kinsley reveals that the Republicans are hypocrites in their answer to Roe:

But has anybody read the 2004 Republican platform on abortion? It doesn't merely call for reversal of Roe v. Wade. It calls for "legislation to make it clear that the 14th Amendment's protections apply to unborn children," and for judges who believe likewise. If fetuses are "persons" under the 14th Amendment, which guarantees all persons "equal protection of the law," abortion will be illegal whether a state or Congress wants to legalize it or not. More than that: There could be no legal distinction between the rights of fetuses and the rights of human beings after birth. So, just for example, a woman who procured an abortion would have to be prosecuted as if she had hired a gunman to murder her child. The doctor would have to be treated like the gunman. If the state had a death penalty, it would have to apply to both. And the party that now controls all three branches of government says this is already the case. Legislation is only needed to "make it clear," and judges are needed who will enforce it.

But no "activism," please. The Republican Party can't stand that.


Pat Buchanan for president of Holland

Justly concerned about a wave of religiously motivated violence, Dutch and other European officials are taking exactly the wrong approach:

European Union justice and interior ministers agreed Friday that new immigrants to the 25-nation bloc should be required to learn local languages, and to adhere to general "European values" that will guide them toward better integration.

Dutch immigration minister Rita Verdonk, who chaired the meeting, said all countries agreed to make integrating newcomers a priority, considering the growing ethnic tensions as EU nations struggle to absorb a steady stream of poor, mostly Muslim immigrants.

The United States is proof that immigrants can keep their own customs even while the nation maintains a common culture, and perhaps because we are a nation of immigrants, we don't quite understand the obsession that same European nations have for cultural purity.

"It's not like we are against immigration," Verdonk said. "If you want to live in the Netherlands, you have to adhere to our rules ... and learn our language."

Highlighting a European-wide problem, Verdonk said that some 500,000 Turkish and Moroccan immigrants in the Netherlands don't speak Dutch.


For now, integration policies across the continent vary greatly. Public concerns over immigration have fueled electoral successes for far-right parties in several European countries, including Austria and Italy, where they have joined the national government.

Violence can't be tolerated, and certainly, there is a limit to the amount of accomodations any government can make to those who don't speak its language. But unless the Europeans encourage religious and cultural freedom, they will reap only more violence and a further fracturing of their societies.

Just a theory

A south-central Pennsylvania school district has decided to teach intelligent design, which is essentially creationism with a scientific veneer. It has no place in a science classroom. Here's the kicker:

Officials will "make sure no one is promoting but also not inhibiting religion," the statement, which was posted on the district's Web site, says. It also says, "Because Darwin's theory is a theory, it is still being tested as new evidence is discovered."

Scientists don't use the word "theory" the same way you and I use it; evolution--which is the foundation of modern biology--is supported by plenty of scientific evidence. It is notable that two of the 20th century's most conservative popes--Pius XII and John Paul II--both issued letters during their tenure in defense of evolution. Faith need not conflict with science. It is sad that in this country, that seems a hard lesson to learn.

Saturday, November 20, 2004

Sense of security

Bill Steigerwald says that we may be safer than we think from terrorists.

Enough already

I realize the Rooney family has done a lot of good for Pittsburgh over the years, but frankly, I've had just about enough of them lately. First, they suck $4 million from the public teat for an unneeded amphitheater next to Heinz Field (we won't even get into Heinz Field) and now Dan Rooney is getting sanctimonious over the ABC's risque promotion of "Desperate Housewives" during Monday Night Football. Get over it.

Thursday, November 18, 2004

Bend over

President Bush wants to eliminate taxes on investment and savings, and to do it, he may seek to end local and state tax deductions, and the deductions businesses receive to offer health insurance, according to the Washington Post. I don't pretend to know a lot about economic policy, but on the face of it, eliminating those deductions would seem to be bad news for the middle class. The deduction on local property taxes helps people afford homes, and props up home values. Now, in the long run, the market likely would respond with lower housing costs, but current homeowners would reap a lower return on their investments, and if they factored their deduction into their ability to make payments, might run into problems with their finances.
(I discussed this with Fester at his blog awhile back. I'm assuming that Bush doesn't want to eliminate the mortgage interest deduction.)

I'm also not sure how wise it is to take away an economic incentive for businesses to provide health insurance, especially when the administration's only answer to the nation's health care crisis are medical savings accounts. More people without health insurance means less preventative care, which means greater catastrophic health care costs, which means higher medical bills for all of us.

The wheels on the bus...

The Allegheny Institute says the Port Authority's costs are too high, and it has some suggestions for operating a more efficient transit system:
In order to minimize budget shortfalls and, thus, the need for further taxpayer subsidies, the Port Authority must raise the number of bus passenger trips per hour of service. That can be done by cutting out many of the daytime, evening, and weekend routes that carry few passengers per hour of operation. And contrary to the authority's claims, it does not require totally eliminating evening and weekend service. It does mean running fewer buses at non-peak hours in order to boost the number of riders per bus hour of operation to create more cost efficiency.

The authority also should look at allowing private firms to carry passengers on smaller, more efficient vehicles to provide service to areas and at times the Port Authority cannot operate efficiently with its highly paid drivers and large buses. Threats of eliminating evening or weekend service are scare tactics and indicate an unwillingness to manage in a way that makes the system more efficient.

In addition, the authority needs to ask for concessions from its drivers and other employees to bring wage rates more in line with other systems. It is simply not appropriate for Port Authority employees to be paid more than most of their fellow drivers across the country and ask taxpayers to pay more to underwrite their favored position.
The bottom line is that the Port Authority and SEPTA in Philadelphia can't keep coming back to the Legislature every year, hat in hand. The state has too many rural and suburban legislators who won't keep voting for increased funds for something that largely benefits urban residents. The status quo simply won't do.

Wednesday, November 17, 2004

A good soldier

A lot of commentators have referred to outgoing Secretary of State Colin Powell as a good soldier for sticking it out for four years even though he was on the losing end of the administration's major foreign policy debates. The Trib has a somewhat different take:

His skepticism became sureness when the marching orders were given, just as his reluctance for the first Gulf War turned into duty-bound performance.

But his status was different on these two occasions. He was a soldier -- chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in 1990 and 1991 -- but a civilian diplomat in 2003. He was utterly free to resign in 2003 if conviction was his guiding light. To wit: My God, the Bushies are doing it again.


And thus, upon his decision to quit as secretary of state, Powell leaves too late. He did not resign in 2003 to take a stand for his widely praised moderation -- when principle was truly at stake.

We do not think Powell a bad man, but a crafty one.

This Rockefeller Republican wanted it both ways. The less perceptive may give him credit for having danced with panache. Yet of a man of whom it is said loyalty is a watchword, his loyalty was to Colin Powell.

Of course, other accounts of Powell's tenure portray him as winning many battles the public doesn't know about, and keeping the administration in check. Hard to fathom, and scary to imagine.

Absolute power

One of the reasons the GOP was able to take control of Congress in 1994 was because the Democrats had become drunk and bloated with power. Forty years, it turned out, was far too long for one party to be in power.

Now, with 10 years as the majority party under their belt, and fresh from an Election Day triumph, it's the Republicans' turn to abuse their power:

House Republicans proposed changing their rules last night to allow members indicted by state grand juries to remain in a leadership post, a move that would benefit Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) in case he is charged by a Texas grand jury that has indicted three of his political associates, according to GOP leaders.

The proposed rule change, which several leaders predicted would win approval at a closed meeting today, comes as House Republicans return to Washington feeling indebted to DeLay for the slightly enhanced majority they won in this month's elections. DeLay led an aggressive redistricting effort in Texas last year that resulted in five Democratic House members retiring or losing reelection. It also triggered a grand jury inquiry into fundraising efforts related to the state legislature's redistricting actions.

All God's children

This tear-jerker of a story speaks for itself.

Tuesday, November 16, 2004

Wall of separation

I believe in the separation of church and state, but this is ridiculous:

The Pentagon has agreed to warn military bases worldwide that they should not directly sponsor Boy Scout troops, partially resolving claims that the government has improperly supported a group that requires members to believe in God.

The settlement, announced Monday, came in a 1999 lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois, which says American military units have sponsored hundreds of Boy Scout troops.

"If our Constitution's promise of religious liberty is to be a reality, the government should not be administering religious oaths or discriminating based on religious beliefs," said ACLU lawyer Adam Schwartz.

No one is compelled to join the Boy Scouts. There are bigger battles for the ACLU to be fighting these days.

Monday, November 15, 2004

Listen to the money talk

So I'm watching "Trading Spouses: Meet Your New Mommy" on Fox (Yes, I admit it) in which families swap mothers for a week, in exchange for $50,000. And it occurs to me, and I realize this is a cliche, that there is no end to what people will do for money, no matter how demeaning. Reality television proves this. And then it occurs to me that a book written in 1959 predicted this--"The Magic Christian" by Terry Southern. It's about a billionaire who offers people money in exchange for performing demeaning acts. And invariably, they say yes. Check it out.

...that Iraqi boys can do for themselves

Maybe now that the election is over, the administration can admit that it needs more troops in Iraq, or so hopes Andrew Sullivan:

The notion that Falluja would be one-stop shopping for insurgents was obviously, sadly, over-optimistic. So do we have enough troops to quell an insurgency that seems, even now, to be gaining strength elsewhere? And does the Bush administration have the capacity to admit past mistakes in order to prevent future ones?

Friday, November 12, 2004

Worthy opponents

John Kerry finds a friend on the pages of the neoconservative Weekly Standard:

Was Kerry a bad candidate? No. I have to assume that many of these critics never actually followed the candidate around, because close-up, Kerry was a pretty good candidate. I saw Kerry blow away crowds in New Hampshire. He gave a very good convention speech. He was excellent in the first presidential debate (but for the "global test" line, which haunted him afterwards). His day-to-day performance on the stump was also very fine--I saw him handle tough questions from voters with aplomb; and when he was interacting with a crowd, his rich and haughty caricature disappeared completely. ...

Did Kerry do anything to damage his party structurally? No. In fact, he did quite the opposite. At a time when all of the cultural tension was pulling Democrats towards the lefty fringe, Kerry, for the most part, resisted. A Howard Dean-style campaign--based on isolationism and pacifism--would have been truly disastrous for Democrats and might have realigned American politics for a generation.

Granted, Kerry didn't help the party as much as he could have by jettisoning the Michael Moore wing. Had he done so, he would have done for Democrats what George H.W. Bush and Bob Dole did for Republicans in the '90s by throwing Pat Buchanan overboard.

But that shouldn't overshadow Kerry's very real accomplishment: He stood his ground as anti-Americanism and knee-jerk pacifism roiled the base of the Democratic party. He prevented the main body of his party from giving in to the Moores, Deans, and MoveOns of the world. And in doing so, he has given them the chance to fight again another day.

A sucker's bet

Hey, weren't slot machines supposed to fund property tax reform? Because apparently Mayor Murphy thinks they should pay for a new arena for the Penguins, a franchise that has declared bankruptcy twice in its history, playing in a league in which few teams make money. You have to pity the poor Penguins, who watched the city, county and state pony up for new stadiums for the Pirates and Steelers, only to find the public coffers empty when it comes their turn.

In an interview last week, Murphy said he would like to see the winning bidder dedicate a portion of its slots revenue to help build a new arena, whether it's the Penguins, Forest City, Stabile or someone else.

He said he believes that's justified, given what an important public facility an arena is. He said Mellon Arena, which opened in 1961, is nearing the end of its useful life.

"Public facility"? Last time I checked, you had to pay to attend hockey games, and tickets ain't cheap. You have to pay to attend concerts, the circus, monster truck rallies, etc. Well, maybe a new arena will rejuvenate the Hill District, the way the stadiums have spurred all that development on the North Shore.

Oh, wait...

The path of moderation

Chastened by the passage of constitutional amendments banning gay marriage in 11 states, the gay rights movement appears to be deciding to take the prudent course and limit its court battles to trying to preserving same-sex benefits and securing the right to enter into civil unions. As the New York Times reports:

So challenging the new state amendments by arguing that gays have the right to marry under the federal Constitution is unlikely anytime soon. Instead, gay rights groups will move cautiously, mostly on procedural matters in states whose measures appear to infringe on civil unions and benefits for same-sex couples.

Matthew Coles, the director of the American Civil Liberties Union's lesbian and gay rights project, said that groups like his would adopt a measured pace in filing lawsuits.

"The consequences - the risks - of losing are great," Mr. Coles said. "And we're unprepared for the consequences of winning." In his eyes, he said, winning in court too soon could mean losing in the court of public opinion, in Congress and under the United States Constitution.

The last thing the gay rights movement needs is a pyrrhic legal victory like Roe v. Wade, which in the end will do more harm than good to a woman's right to choose. Before Roe, many states were moving to liberalize their abortion laws. But Roe cut off all debate, and left abortion opponents feeling alienated and ultimately able to seize the political and moral high ground. Gay rights advocates are better off trying to sway public opinion in favor of the rights that attend civil unions.



Thursday, November 11, 2004

The more things change...

The Allegheny Conference on Community Development may have removed the White Men Only sign from the clubhouse door, as the PG reports, but it's still the same paternalistic organization that has smothered entrepreneurship and creativity in Pittsburgh over the last 50 years.

Saving the First Amendment

My suspicions were correct; numerous ABC affiliates, including WTAE here in Pittsburgh, will not broadcast "Saving Private Ryan" tonight because of its graphic content. (Apparently, people swear a lot when they are at war, and they sometimes get shot.) The stations' corporate ownership say they fear FCC fines, even though the prominent head of a conservative media watchdog group has promised not to file complaints.

I have a conspiracy theory about this--that the stations are trying to embarrass the FCC by refusing to show a popular, patriotic movie on Veterans Day.

This red state has me green with envy

Denver voters--thanks to a huge influx of new residents--have approved a sales tax hike to fund a new train system. Planners believe that as many as 900,000 more people will move to the region over the next 20 years, and officials hope the transit system will spur high-density development inside the city and old-fashioned streetcar suburbs outside it. (Much like the Mainline of Philadelphia.) It's a great idea, and it's in stark contrast to the ailing public transportation systems we have in Pennsylvania.

Wednesday, November 10, 2004

Saving Private Cruise

Something piqued my curiosity this evening--ABC is set to air "Saving Private Ryan" tomorrow night, in honor of Veterans Day. But our local affiliate, WTAE-TV, is airing "Far and Away" instead. Any thoughts? Could it be the graphic content? ABC is supposed to broadcast the movie uncut.

Leave the poor boy alone

I hate to say this, it hurts me to have to say this, but the local media needs to leave Rick Santorum alone about his kids attending a cyber charter school. The Penn Hills School District is in a tizzy because Santorum, while maintaining a Penn Hills residence, lives most of the time in Virginia, as do his children, but the district, as the media has told it, has to pay for his kids to attend a cyber charter school.

First, the facts: Charter schools are independent public schools, freed from most state regulations, which have to receive permission to operate from the districts in which they are located. When a child attends a charter school, most of the state subsidy their home school district would have received goes instead to the charter school. Although the home school district gets to keep a chunk--about 20 percent, if memory serves--for administrative costs, public school officials say that charter schools end up costing them money. (Primarily because they are still responsible for things like transportation, and because, they say, the loss of pupils ruins their economies of scale.) Cyber charter schools, because they offer instruction online, can draw students from all across the state.

So what Penn Hills is really upset about, in my opinion, is the charter school law, particularly as it pertains to the cyber charter schools that operate outside the district's borders and thus outside their control. And they are using Santorum--who, regardless of where his family lives most of the time, continues to be a taxpayer of the district and of Pennsylvania--as a straw man to protest the law.

Now, Santorum is a hypocrite in one respect, which Sally Kalson points out in her PG column today. When he first ran for Congress in 1990, he bashed his opponent, Rep. Doug Walgren, for living outside his district. A lot of challengers employ this tactic to portray an incumbent as out of touch with the folks home. And most, after they are elected, end up doing the exact same thing. Members of Congress may be public servants, but no one should expect them to work thousands of miles from where their families live.

Tuesday, November 09, 2004

Counterpoint

While liberals fear that fundamentalist Christians wield inordinate influence over the Bush administration and the future direction of the United States, Christopher Hitchens argues that Bush is fighting a war to make the world safe for secularism:

George Bush may subjectively be a Christian, but he—and the U.S. armed forces—have objectively done more for secularism than the whole of the American agnostic community combined and doubled. The demolition of the Taliban, the huge damage inflicted on the al-Qaida network, and the confrontation with theocratic saboteurs in Iraq represent huge advances for the non-fundamentalist forces in many countries. The "antiwar" faction even recognizes this achievement, if only indirectly, by complaining about the way in which it has infuriated the Islamic religious extremists around the world. But does it accept the apparent corollary—that we should have been pursuing a policy to which the fanatics had no objection?

Secularism is not just a smug attitude. It is a possible way of democratic and pluralistic life that only became thinkable after several wars and revolutions had ruthlessly smashed the hold of the clergy on the state. We are now in the middle of another such war and revolution, and the liberals have gone AWOL. I dare say that there will be a few domestic confrontations down the road, over everything from the Pledge of Allegiance to the display of Mosaic tablets in courtrooms and schools. I have spent all my life on the atheist side of this argument, and will brace for more of the same, but I somehow can't hear Robert Ingersoll* or Clarence Darrow being soft and cowardly and evasive if it came to a vicious theocratic challenge that daily threatens us from within and without.

Hitchens, with whom I often disagree when it comes to the war in Iraq, has nonetheless offered the war's most vigorous intellectual and moral defense, and his arguments cannot be easily dismissed.

The rule of law

San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, who you may recall issued 4,000 marriage licenses to gay couples until a court ordered him to stop, has become a scapegoat among Democrats for inflaming conservative passions against gay marriage. George Will has a salient point on the matter:

Newsom's heavily televised grandstanding -- illegally issuing nearly 4,000 same-sex marriage licenses -- underscored what many Americans find really insufferable. It is not so much same-sex marriage that enrages them: Most Americans oppose an anti-same-sex amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which is why it fell 49 votes short of the required two-thirds in the House and 19 short in the Senate. Rather, what provokes people is moral arrogance expressed in disdain for democratic due process.

The hallmark of the American constitutional system, and the reason it is a beacon for the rest of the world, warts and all, is that we believe in the rule of law, not of men. That's where Gavin Newsom went wrong.

And speaking of the rule of law, a federal judge has reminded the president that it applies to him too:

A federal judge ruled Monday that President Bush had both overstepped his constitutional bounds and improperly brushed aside the Geneva Conventions in establishing military commissions to try detainees at the United States naval base here as war criminals.

The ruling by Judge James Robertson of United States District Court in Washington brought an abrupt halt to the trial here of one detainee, one of hundreds being held at Guantánamo as enemy combatants. It threw into doubt the future of the first set of United States military commission trials since the end of World War II as well as other legal proceedings devised by the administration to deal with suspected terrorists.

Monday, November 08, 2004

Fat chance

Slate's Fred Kaplan wonders whether the president, having won re-election, will finally admit he made some mistakes in Iraq.

The definition of insanity, part three

You can learn everything you need to know about what is wrong with Pittsburgh by reading this story in today's Trib:

With 31 properties Downtown worth more than $27 million, Pittsburgh's Urban Redevelopment Authority has a big stake in the area's rebirth.

But the URA also is a major reason why the hard labor leading to that rebirth continues, retailers and real estate brokers say. They complain that the agency turns away developers who might bring new life to the Downtown.

"The city's got to allow the private sector to develop Downtown," said Eitan Solomon, who owns Prime Gear, a sports apparel shop on Wood Street. "We don't live in Russia. I don't think so."

Several of the URA's high-profile buildings along Forbes Avenue -- all bought with taxpayer money for city government-directed redevelopment plans that failed -- sit empty. Cheerful posters behind dust-caked and graffiti-scrawled windows show a rising sun and the URA's name while proclaiming: "Preparing Downtown for a Brighter Tomorrow!"


Mayor Tom Murphy readily acknowledges the city has turned down "a number of developers" who want individual URA properties. The city would rather hold onto them, he said, hoping to turn them into a sweeping retail and housing redevelopment.

"We believe -- and every person we have talked to, every developer, has been clear -- that the value is in doing it holistically, comprehensively, not in a piecemeal way," Murphy said. "If we begin to sell the buildings off, then we move away from doing what I think would be attractive development."

Truly vibrant, healthy city neighborhoods do not develop "holistically." They cannot be planned. They are diverse. Often, they grow in fits and starts. Sometimes they are messy. They often are noisy and chaotic. Ever spend a Saturday morning in the Strip District? You'll almost convince yourself you live in a city.

My friends, how many times must I say it? Many of the people who run Pittsburgh, who have controlled it through decades of decline, do not like cities. They pretend to like them, they say they like them, but in reality, they hate cities. They hate everything that makes a city special, everything that separates cities from the unyielding monotony of the suburbs. And until the people who live in this city throw off their shackles, Pittsburgh will continue to shrivel and shrink until it is less than an empty shell.

"Preparing Downtown for a Brighter Tomorrow"? What's that saying, that today is the tomorrow you worried about yesterday? Well, tomorrow is here. And it is every bit as bad as we feared.

Sunday, November 07, 2004

Can I hear an amen?

Beliefnet has a detailed breakdown of how people of various religious stripes voted last week. The Democrats' share of the Catholic voted dropped from 2000, which turned out to be fatal. Another interesting tidbit is that Kerry picked up 2 million more voters ages 18-29 than Gore did in 2000. Because of overall increases in turnout, the youth vote did not appear to increase, but given that the Democrats are losing every other parts of their base, they might want to consider ways to keep these new voters energized.

By the way, for those of you unfamiliar with it, Beliefnet is a great site for people interested in religious issues.

Saturday, November 06, 2004

Liberty and justice for all

As a matter of political strategy, I believe, as I did before Tuesday's election, that the Democrats should adopt the Dick Cheney view of gay marriage: Freedom means freedom for everyone, but the question should be left to the states. But as a matter of basic justice, I have to agree with this Post-Gazette editorial:

In some of the states that passed anti-gay amendments Nov. 2, laws existed until relatively recently that prohibited marriages between men and women of different races, with the "sin" of miscegenation also denounced in biblical terms. Eventually, people realized that morality posing as prejudice was not in fact moral.

It is all too easy to pass laws that give a large comfortable group the sanctimonious pleasure of dictating to a historically hated smaller one, but the unfairness eventually becomes too much. Such overreach was present in this go-around: While amendments in Mississippi, Montana and Oregon were restricted to gay marriage (as is the proposed federal amendment), those in Arkansas, Georgia. Kentucky. Michigan. North Dakota, Oklahoma, Ohio and Utah also banned gay civil unions.

What is wrong with this was eloquently expressed by Andrew Sullivan in an online commentary: "In eight more states now, gay couples have no relationship rights at all. Their legal ability to visit a spouse in a hospital, to pass on property, to have legal protections for their children, has been gutted. If you are a gay couple living in Alabama, you know one thing: Your family has no standing under the law, and it can and will be violated by strangers."

Despair is premature, though. It may take some time, but such fundamental unfairness will one day be seen for what it is: immoral and un-American.


And now for something completely different

In the interest of listening to every side, here's a more generous view of President Bush than you usually find here:

Tuesday's 58 million votes for George W. Bush made evident what many of us having been saying for a long time; that George W. Bush is the most effective politician of his generation. Since the GOP's 1998 mid-term election debacle, the GOP (under Bush's leadership) has won two presidential elections, recaptured control of the United States Senate, increased its influence in the House of Representatives, and stands ready to appoint 2 and possibly 4 US Supreme Court justices over the course of the next four years.

Mr. Bush's accomplishment is made larger by the fact that he did all this in the face of constant, withering criticism and ad hominem attacks from the news media, the publishing world, Hollywood, the music industry and the academy. From Farenheit 9/11 to Kitty Kelly to the daily onslaughts of The New York Times to Eminem to the fabulists at CBS News, the so-called "media elite" painted a caricature of President Bush that was truly frightening.

It was also wrong. The thing that separates President Bush from the rest of us 50-something fuddy-duddies, aside from his discipline and personal fortitude, is his capacity for growth. Like President Clinton before him, he has grown in office and become a much bigger, much more interesting man. He stood before us on Thursday a man in full; tempered by war, sustained by faith, humbled by success, confident in the future.

The writer of that tribute, John Ellis, is a Bush cousin.

They are human, like the rest of us

The Washington Post has a fine piece of journalism about an Ohio couple who voted for President Bush primarily because of religion and cultural issues. The article is relatively free of condescension, although there is a vague sense that the writer regards the family as something of an exotic species.

I think one of the problems with our political disputes is the way we create straw men out of our opponents, trying to paint them all as extremists, and how we try to prey on one another's darkest fears. Not exactly an original thought, but a sincere one, and I'm trying to hold a mirror up to myself on this one. I think it's important that Bush supporters realize that not everyone who disagrees with them lives in Hollywood or Manhattan, and that Bush opponents, particularly on the left, understand that not everyone who voted for the president Tuesday is a narrow-minded, self-righteous bigot. Most of the members of my family probably cast a vote for the president, as well as one of my closest friends from childhood and his parents. I'd like to think the country is still big enough for all of us.

Because they're stupid

Slate has been asking liberal writers to discuss why Americans keep rejecting Democrats. Perhaps it's because of elitist garbage like this:

Listen to what the red state citizens say about themselves, the songs they write, and the sermons they flock to. They know who they are—they are full of original sin and they have a taste for violence. The blue state citizens make the Rousseauvian mistake of thinking humans are essentially good, and so they never realize when they are about to be slugged from behind.

Here is how ignorance works: First, they put the fear of God into you—if you don't believe in the literal word of the Bible, you will burn in hell. Of course, the literal word of the Bible is tremendously contradictory, and so you must abdicate all critical thinking, and accept a simple but logical system of belief that is dangerous to question. A corollary to this point is that they make sure you understand that Satan resides in the toils and snares of complex thought and so it is best not try it.

Thursday, November 04, 2004

A light shines through the darkness

You may recall that Arlen Specter faced a stiff primary challenge from conservative Pat Toomey, and that President Bush angered a lot of conservatives by backing the moderate Specter, who squeeked out a victory. Well, Arlen has repaid the president's support with a veiled threat to block any judicial nominee he deems too conservative. Specter is in line to become chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and this is exactly the scenario that Toomey's backers feared.

I'm not laughing. Really, I'm not.

Speaking of the U.S. Senate campaign in Pennsylvania, I see that Libertarian Betsy Summers, for whom I voted, finished dead last with about 77,645 votes. Look out, Rick Santorum, we're coming after you next!

Wednesday, November 03, 2004

Homer Simpson in 2008

If you need a good laugh after Tuesday's debacle, check out the Beaver County election results. The county lists write-in votes on their Web site. My personal favorites: "A Talking Pizza" and "Dr. Poop" each of whom received a vote for auditor general.

We don't feel their pain

Nicholas Kristoff offers a cogent diagnosis of the Democrats' ailments in wake of John Kerry's loss in Tuesday's election. Simply put, much of middle America views the Democratic Party as cultural elitists who don't respect their values:

To put it another way, Democrats peddle issues, and Republicans sell values. Consider the four G's: God, guns, gays and grizzlies.

One-third of Americans are evangelical Christians, and many of them perceive Democrats as often contemptuous of their faith. And, frankly, they're often right. Some evangelicals take revenge by smiting Democratic candidates.

Then we have guns, which are such an emotive issue that Idaho's Democratic candidate for the Senate two years ago, Alan Blinken, felt obliged to declare that he owned 24 guns "and I use them all." He still lost.

As for gays, that's a rare wedge issue that Democrats have managed to neutralize in part, along with abortion. Most Americans disapprove of gay marriage but do support some kind of civil unions (just as they oppose "partial birth" abortions but don't want teenage girls to die from coat-hanger abortions).

Finally, grizzlies - a metaphor for the way environmentalism is often perceived in the West as high-handed. When I visited Idaho, people were still enraged over a Clinton proposal to introduce 25 grizzly bears into the wild. It wasn't worth antagonizing most of Idaho over 25 bears.

Democrats don't know how to talk to most Americans, and this is something to which the left wing of the party can't reconcile itself. The left thought in 2002 that the Republicans cleaned up in the midterm elections because the Democrats had drifted too far to the right; but the real reason the Democrats lost then, and the reason they lost Tuesday, is because they do not have a clear message, a coherent governing philosophy or a well-organized party structure.

What's really amazing is the Democrats have a successful role model in the form of Bill Clinton, who as a Southern Baptist knew how to talk to evangelicals. (Keep in mind that one of the most religious segments of the population are African Americans, and cultural issues matter a great deal to them.) When Clinton said that abortion should be "safe, legal and rare" he may not have satisfied die-hard pro-lifers, but he reassured the majority of Americans who, as Kristoff notes, think abortion is wrong but don't want to send women scurrying to back alley butchers.

Clinton wasn't perfect; in addition to his ethical problems, he was too quick to compromise, but I can't think of too many Democrats who wouldn't pick him over George W. Bush in a heart beat. Clinton stood on principal on health care and gays in the military, and he failed; but he survived his failures and lived to fight another day.

So the question is, when the inevitable bloodletting begins in the Democratic Party, who will win? The left, which is still mired in the grievance politics of the past, or those who understand that it is more important to win the support of people who go to church than people who go to Starbucks?

A simple plan

The first of many post-election analyses about why Kerry lost--or will lose, once all the votes in Ohio are counted--finds that while Bush had a clear, simple message, Kerry had dozens. The writer, William Saletan of Slate, looks toward 2008 and believes the best thing the Dems can do is nominate John Edwards:

If you're a Democrat, here's my advice. Do what the Republicans did in 1998. Get simple. Find a compelling salesman and get him ready to run for president in 2008. Put aside your quibbles about preparation, stature, expertise, nuance, and all that other hyper-sophisticated garbage that caused you to nominate Kerry. You already have legions of people with preparation, stature, expertise, and nuance ready to staff the executive branch of the federal government. You don't need one of them to be president. You just need somebody to win the White House and appoint them to his administration. And that will require all the simplicity, salesmanship, and easygoing humanity they don't have.

The good news is, that person is already available. His name is John Edwards. If you have any doubt about his electability, just read the exit polls from the 2004 Democratic primaries. If you don't think he's ready to be president—if you don't think he has the right credentials, the right gravitas, the right subtlety of thought—ask yourself whether these are the same things you find wanting in George W. Bush. Because evidently a majority of the voting population of the United States doesn't share your concern. They seem to be attracted to a candidate with a simple message, a clear focus, and a human touch. You might want to consider their views, since they're the ones who will decide whether you're sitting here again four years from now, wondering what went wrong.

Edwards could be damaged goods, but the general idea is sound. That said, I'm going to see if I can't write about something else for the next few days.

Goodnight

I didn't allow myself to believe until this morning that John Kerry could win, and now I'm being punished for my optimism. Well, at least I didn't make any foolish predictions. And maybe I'll wake up and Kerry will have pulled it off.

But I suspect not. Goodnight.

Tuesday, November 02, 2004

2008, anyone?

A faithful reader alerted me that ABC has called Florida for Bush. That leaves Ohio, where Bush's lead remains constant. Although Kerry, according to C-SPAN, has a lead in Wisconsin, he would need to take the upper midwest and Colorado, which would seem to be unlikely. (And that assumes Kerry hangs on in New Mexico and Hawaii.)

Hanging on

The good news for Kerry, according to this C-SPAN map, is that Kerry is ahead in most of the upper midwest, behind only in Wisconsin. The bad news is that he is behind in New Mexico, and in any case, he's toast if he loses both Florida and Ohio, and so far nothing seems to be arresting that trend.

You've got a friend in Pennsylvania

Kerry appears to have won Pennsylvania, but this is really no surprise, despite Bush's efforts to turn this blue state red. I really don't think Kerry is going to pull it out, but I'm still hoping that the urban areas of Ohio will put that state in Kerry's column.

The all-spin zone

Kerry advisor Joe Lockhart is on CNN putting a happy face on the numbers in Florida and Ohio right now. He said that the heavily Democratic precincts have yet to report, and in some cases, voters are still waiting in line to vote. Spin aside, I say things still look bad for the junior senator from Massachusetts.

One analyst is now saying that Kerry is doing better in Ohio's urban areas than Gore did in 2000. We'll see.

Four more years?

I'm starting to get a bad feeling about tonight. Not only are the numbers not looking good for Kerry in Ohio and Florida, but there's been a clear uptick of confidence among Bush supporters as the night wears on. Of course, this time last year, Al Gore's victory appeared to be complete.

What's round on both ends and high in the middle?

Bush has a lead in Ohio, with less than 4 percent of precincts reporting.

UPDATE: Bush's lead in Ohio widens, but as Jeff Greenfield notes on CNN, no one knows yet where the numbers are coming from, so it's hard to tell which precincts still haven't reported.

George W. Cleveland

In a somewhat mean-spirited essay, Timothy Noah raises an intriguing possibility--that President Bush, should he lose this election, might be tempted to run again in 2008, though the 22nd Amendment would require that he serve only one term should he do so. The only other president to serve non-consecutive terms was Grover Cleveland.

By the way, I don't entirely agree with Noah's assessment that while Democrats blame their candidate when he loses, the Republicans blame the opposition. The elder President Bush was persona non grata in Republican circles for a while following his defeat at the hands of Bill Clinton. If GW loses in a landslide--unlikely if he loses at all--I doubt that he would be able to convince his party to give him the nomination again.

Just hold on there a minute, Senator

MSNBC calls South Carolina for Bush, who now has 87 electoral votes to Kerry's 77.

By the way it is interesting that after a lot of obligatory we-won't-make-the-same-mistakes-as-in-2000 statements, all the networks appearing to be calling the states rather quickly, and doing a lot of ruminating over what it means that some states are too close to call, South Carolina being a great example until a few moments ago. Even predictions of a Kerry landslide aren't predicated on him stealing such die-hard red states; most assume he'll run the table of the swing states.

Several Senate races appear to be close; the Democrats need a net gain of one state to take control if John Kerry wins (because John Edwards, as president of the Senate, would break ties) and a net gain of two seats if Kerry loses. The latter possibility seems unlikely.

Kerry 77, Bush 66

CNN has called several more states; again, no surprises, though Bush's hopes for stealing New Jersey (I mean that figuratively) appear to have faltered.

And the winner is...

Early and probably unreliable exit poll numbers show Kerry winning in key states, according to Slate. Fox calls four states for Bush--Indiania, Kentucky, Georgia and West Virginia--and Vermont for Kerry. No surprises yet, although apparently reliably red Virginia and South Carolina were too close to call.

This just in--Mary Cheney is still a lesbian

Eleven states have questions on the ballot asking voters whether to amend their constitutions to deny marriage to same-sex couples. Most are likely to pass, according to Fox News. In eight states, the proposed admendments would also ban civil unions for gays.

Free porn

No, I'm not just fishing for Google traffic. Pittsburgh is the scene of the first major U.S. obscenity case in a decade, pitting a California pornography distributor against western Pennsylvania's puritanical federal prosecutor, Mary Beth Buchanan. (You'll recall that Buchanan successfully prosecuted Tommy Chong for selling marijuana pipes and bongs.) The defendant, Robert D. Zicari, is arguing that the federal obscenity statute is unconstitutional, because it allows individuals to own obscene materials but bans the productions and distribution of them. Zicari's attorney notes, according to the Post-Gazette: "If I can't buy them, there really is no right. In order to be able to possess it, I need to be able to buy it."

Exactly. I believe that communities do have a right to regulate where obscene materials can be sold, but if something is legal to own, then it should be legal to produce and distribute. And it should be legal to own (child pornography excepted) because what consenting adults do in their own homes is no business of the government.

Elsewhere in the individual liberties department, residents in a handful of states are voting today on measures to liberalize their marijuana laws. In Alaska, voters are being asked to legalize marijuana for adults:

Alaska already allows legal possession of small amounts of marijuana by adults, the most liberal policy among the 50 U.S. states, thanks to a 1975 state Supreme Court ruling.

"Our territory and now state has traditionally been the home of people who prize their individuality and who have chosen to settle or to continue living here in order to achieve a measure of control over their own lifestyles which is now virtually unattainable in many of our sister states," the oft-quoted ruling said.

Take that, Ms. Buchanan.

Monday, November 01, 2004

Trick or treat

Too bad Halloween is over.

I have an idea

The Trib tells us that government and local tourism officials are trying to figure out how to drum up more business for the David L. Lawrence Convention Center. I have a better idea--let's invent a time machine so that we can go back in time and stop our feckless leaders from spending $375 million of our hard-earned tax dollars on this monstrosity. Convention centers are a loser--and it's cold comfort that Pittsburgh isn't the only city to swindle itself into building one.

Making a mess of things

As if doing business in Pittsburgh weren't hard enough, now City Council has decided to tell building managers which janitors they can and cannot hire. At the behest of the union that represents janitors, City Council is trying to fast-track a bill to require custodial companies awarded contracts at buildings over 100,000 square feet to retain current employees for at least 180 days.

I certainly think it is only fair to give workers adequate warning that they will be replaced; what I object to is City Council thinking it should have the authority to impose this requirement on private employers. City Councilman Alan Hertzberg said the bill will promote city living, since most Downtown janitors are city residents. Of course, once employers decide that it is too expensive and cumbersome to operate in Pittsburgh, all those buildings will sit empty, and we won't need anyone to clean them.